Guide to Saint Gaudens Double Eagles
The Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle is widely considered to feature the most beautiful designs in the history of United States coinage. Created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the coins would be struck across three different mint facilities from 1907 until the recall of federal gold in 1933. During the first year of the series, a small number of patterns would be struck in ultra high relief, followed by limited production for circulation in high relief, and finally mass production in modified lower relief. The series includes a number of extremely rare issues, which were created due to the impact of mass meltings following the recall of gold coinage.
The design of the series was the result of a historic collaboration between President Theodore Roosevelt and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The president had expressed disapproval of the current circulating coin designs, all of which had been in use for more than half a century. He wanted America’s coins to be objects of beauty and expressions of national identity. He chose America’s most renown sculptor for the task of redesigning all United States circulating denominations. Ultimately, Saint-Gaudens was only able to redesign the double eagle and eagle before his death in 1907.
Saint-Gaudens had previously designed an inaugural medal of President Roosevelt and would begin work on the double eagle in 1905. In a letter to the President, he explained his idea for the design which had been prepared in sketches:
“I have about determined on the composition of one side, which would contain an eagle very much like the one I placed on your medal with a modification that would be advantageous; on the other side some kind of a (possibly winged) figure of Liberty striding forward as if on a mountain top, holding aloft on one arm a shield bearing the stars and stripes with the word Liberty marked across the field; in the other hand perhaps a flaming torch, the drapery would be flowing in the breeze. My idea is to make it a living thing and typical of progress.”
Letters exchanged between Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens also reveal the role which the President played in the creation of the new coin design. One of Roosevelt’s ideas was to strike the coins in high relief, referring to the extent that the sculpted images of the coin project outward. He further suggested raising the rim in order to protect the surfaces of the coin. In the ensuing months, models were prepared and further improvements were made to the original design. It was also determined that the date would be featured in Roman numerals, which would be a first on American coinage. Many of these ideas were strongly rejected by Mint officials, in particular by Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber.
Throughout this period, Saint-Gaudens was struggling through cancer and his condition was worsening. Before he passed away, a small number of patterns were struck in ultra high relief. This represented the original design as intended by Saint-Gaudens, however the coins proved impractical to produce. Following Saint-Gaudens’s death, an alternate set of dies were put into production featuring the design in high relief, although this design also proved challenging to produce. Charles E. Barber prepared a final set of lower relief dies, which would be used for mass production.
The coins all carry the same basic design throughout the variations in relief. The obverse features a full figure of Liberty, striding confidently forward. In one hand she holds a lit torch and in the other an olive branch. The Capitol dome can be seen in the far background and rays of the rising sun fill the fields. There are 46 stars surrounding, representing the number of states in the Union at the time. The word LIBERTY appears above. The date, which appears at lower right, was first expressed in Roman Numerals to present a classical look, but later changed to Arabic Numerals. The designer’s monogram “ASG” appears beneath the date.
The reverse design features a bald eagle in flight. The sun appears below with its rays extending upwards into the fields. The inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and TWENTY DOLLARS appear above. During 1908, the design was modified to add the motto IN GOD WE TRUST between the sun and its rays. The edge of the coin carries the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM with stars placed between each of the words.
Similar to other gold coin series of this era, mintage figures are only one consideration when determining the rarity of a particular issue. Many later issues carried high mintages, but were never released and eventually melted, resulting in extremely few surviving specimens. The most famous example is the 1933 Double Eagle, which had a mintage of 445,500 pieces, but currently has only a single example which is legal for private ownership.
The Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle design continues to have a place within modern coinage. The American Gold Eagle series features Saint-Gaudens’s obverse design paired with a modern reverse design. From 1986 to present, the United States Mint has produced the series across four different sizes in bullion, proof, and uncirculated versions. The Mint has also produced the 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle, a one ounce 24-karat gold coin featuring the design and relief as Saint-Gaudens had originally intended.